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An Autonomous Nineveh Region Strengthens Iraqi Kurdish Region
By Yerevan Saeed

A Kurdish flag by the road in a stretch of land controlled by the Peshmarga near the Syrian border and Nineveh (Photo: Rudaw).
Last week, Nineveh Governor Athil Nujaifi announced that the provisional administration has started negotiations with the Kurdistan Region "for implementing the project of turning Nineveh into an autonomous region."

He said the purpose is to offer better services for the population of his province, not to form a Sunni region in Iraq.

The governor's declaration comes at a time when Sunnis in the country have been pushed to the corner by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Sunni-majority provinces, such as Nineveh, are struggling to find ways to escape Baghdad's domination, and to provide better protection and services for their constituents.

Not long ago, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Nineveh relations were strained enough that many believed it would lead to violence between the two sides.

The 2009 provincial elections shifted the balance of power to the Sunni Arabs in Nineveh, when Nujajfi's Hadba bloc won 19 out of 37 seats. Tensions with Kurdistan hit new highs after Nujaifi called for the unconditional withdrawal of Kurdish forces, in return for allowing the Kurds to participate in the local administration and be given the deputy governor position.

The governor's actions seemed to have been fueled by the fear that Kurds want to control Nineveh and the only way to prevent this is to purge the province from the Kurdish forces. For this, he had the backing of Baghdad.

Consequently, the Sunnis did not see any reason why they should cooperate with the Kurds and accommodate their demands in an Arab majority province.

Officials in the Nineveh administration believed they could have Baghdad on their side, not only to have the upper hand in provincial politics, but also in the row over disputed territories between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Nineveh.

In the last two years, KRG and Nineveh relations have pacified through negotiations and the unfolding events in Iraq, including complaints by Sunni provinces that they are being neglected and marginalized by the Shiite-led Baghdad government.

Events in western Anbar province, where Baghdad has been trying to push Shiite influence through military means, has made a large impact on other Sunni provinces like Nineveh, where the governor fears Baghdad is not ready to develop the natural resources of his province.

In the meantime, the KRG and the administration in Nineveh have taken steps towards recognizing the other's interests. For example, the KRG has provided fuel and electricity to the province. It has also informed Nineveh authorities about the oil concessions granted to ExxonMobil in their disputed areas.

In return, the governor has quit his calls for withdrawal of Kurdish forces in Nineveh. He has been more accommodating, especially after the April 2013 provincial elections, where Kurds won important posts in his administration. Most importantly, he has recognized the oil concessions the KRG has granted to Exxon.

Furthermore, KRG's adoption of an open door policy to the persecuted Sunni politicians and refugees has built enough trust for the Sunnis and the Kurds to cooperate to counter the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Currently, dozens of Sunni dissidents and thousands of refugees fleeing the terror of the Iraqi army have found an unexpected welcome in the long--oppressed Kurdish enclave of Iraq.

As the matter of fact, unlike Anbar and Salaheddin provinces, Nineveh has the potential to become another successful autonomous region like Kurdistan.

In the first instance, it can benefit from its stable eastern border with Kurdistan. This can be a gateway to international markets, bolstering Nineveh's economic viability. Nineveh can duplicate the success of the KRG's oil contracts on its own territories. It has already held talks with oil companies in the past, though agreements have remained pending.

The Nineveh region also can establish its own guards to protect its borders. Regional guards create loyalty among the population and the locals feel part of the security force. No longer will there be the resentment that rises when army brigades are dispatched from the Shiite provinces to provide security for a Sunni area of the country.

Should Nineveh announce autonomy from Baghdad, the KRG can provide training and help in forming the regional guards.

Cooperation between KRG and Nineveh would be mutually beneficial because, at the end of the day, the stability and security of KRG depends more on the Sunni provinces than on Baghdad or Basra. The future of the Kurds and the Sunnis will also depend on a weak central authority. So it is in the best interest of KRG and Nineveh to work together than to grant Baghdad a space to maneuver to reassert its power on them.

Nineveh should go ahead and declare autonomy. This will prevent Baghdad from carving out two more provinces out of Nineveh, which aims at further divide and weaken local Sunni rule against the central authority.

Even though the new governorate law gives more powers to the provinces, Nineveh should not be misled by this illusion, because historically Iraq has no precedence of commitment and respect for the laws it adopts.

Instead of dealing with the mess of Baghdad, it is time for Nineveh to capitalize on it's relations with the KRG and benefit from its experience and stability to connect itself with Turkey and Europe.

In the meantime, through economic and population integration, the KRG and Nineveh can build an economic powerhouse in the north, where the combined population of both regions would add up to more than eight million people.

Of course, this is no easy task. It has to be done when Nineveh can protect its southern and western borders. Nevertheless, this is a new approach, following a decade of policy failures by the central government, and assurances to the non-Shiite populations that Iraq belongs to all Iraqis.

Yerevan Saeed is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston.

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